It’s not the first time inspiration to take action came from Elvis.
Mark Griep and his wife, Marjorie Mikasen, were watching the 1967 Elvis Presley movie “Clambake,” of all things, when the kernel of an idea was born that led to a new book.
In “Clambake,” Elvis plays a chemist. Griep, a chemistry professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Mikasen, a geometric artist, got to thinking: Where else is chemistry in the movies?
At the same time, Griep was looking for a way to use social and cultural references in his teaching to get students talking, get them involved in chemistry.
Movies turned out to be the answer.
“I actually use a three-minute clip of ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ on my first day of class,” Griep said. The clip — in which students learn to pot squiggly mandrake plants, which are used to heal petrified students — contains a safety message and leads him to ask the question: Where do drugs come from? Answer: You have to have a hypothesis.
Griep and Mikasen first wrote a paper for the Journal of Chemical Education about using chemistry-themed movies in the classroom. “After we wrote the paper, we realized we had volumes of material,” Mikasen said. “No one else had written a book about chemistry and the movies. So we said, ‘Why don’t we do it?’ ”
The pair will sign copies of “ReAction! Chemistry in the Movies,” at a reception at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln. The book signing will be followed by a screening of the 1933 movie “The Invisible Man” at 7 p.m.
The book, published by Oxford University Press, arrives after two solid years of study and writing, plus the time it took to find funding to do the research. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which promotes public understanding of science, approved a 2006 grant so that Mikasen and Griep could spend a week at the British Film Institute in London and two weeks visiting five film archives in Los Angeles (including one at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), screening films and gathering photos and information for the book.
They watched more than 300 in all, though only about 110 are detailed in the book. Knowing the tastes of contemporary audiences, they concentrated on movies shot in color after 1970. They looked for movies rich in chemical ideas that were also good films.
“The goal was to have a collection of movies that chemistry instructors could refer to, to illuminate some theme in the classroom,” Griep said. “It wasn’t important if the movie got it right. The chemistry is never completely correct in the movies. But the professor is there to explain about that.”
For Mikasen, balancing chemistry used in a good way with that used in a bad way was important for the book. That yin and yang approach put the authors in mind of two classic chemistry movies, “The Invisible Man” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” which turned out to be the basis of many movies that followed.
For example, their research revealed that “Altered States,” a 1980 movie starring William Hurt and Blair Brown, had its roots in Jekyll and Hyde.
Themes in the book’s 10 chapters include: Jekyll vs. inventor chemists (examples: “Mary Reilly” and “Who Killed the Electric Car”); invisible man vs. forensic chemists (“Hollow Man” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”); chemical weapons vs. classroom chemistry (“United 93” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”); polluting chemical companies vs. altruistic research (“The Constant Gardener” and “Me and Isaac Newton”); and mind-altering drugs vs. the drug discovery process (“Thank You for Smoking” and “Medicine Man”).
They also refer to chemistry between actors, as when Desi Arnaz played a chemist opposite Lucille Ball in “Forever Darling.”
Griep isn’t the only one who uses chemistry in his work. Mikasen uses chemistry principles in her paintings, which are sometimes based on chemical images and concepts.
“We do a lot of projects together,” Mikasen said. “And we talk a lot about theory.”
Their theory this time is that writing about chemistry in the movies will appeal not only to movie fans but also to teachers and students of the subject.
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